History repeating in Syria

At the beginning of the week, there was a devastating chemical weapons attack in Syria. At time of writing, there’s an estimated 42 dead and up to 500 injured. The attack occurred in Eastern Ghouta, one of the most volatile centres of Syrian violence, just as rebels against the Assad government were brokering a deal to leave peacefully. The Assad government firmly denies the chemical attack even occurred, in spite of internationally acknowledged verifiable evidence from the United Nations World Health Organisation.

The disturbing images quickly circulated around the world, and ignited the fraught international situation yet again. Importantly, President Assad is supported by Russia and Iran. Last year, under similar circumstances, President Trump authorised an attack on a Syrian airbase shortly after a chemical weapons attack on Syrian rebels and citizens. On Wednesday, President Trump tweeted an open threat to Russia: “Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’ You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”

White House officials quickly confirmed that military action was still pending. British Prime Minister Theresa May has said she would support military action against the Syrian government. In anticipation of an attack, Syrian planes have been flown to Russia, and government officials have been placed in safe houses in Damascus. A US Naval battlegroup – including a guided missile destroyer – is hanging out in the eastern Mediterranean, apparently just minding its own business.

In Syria, 133,000 people are fleeing the capital for fear of being attacked.

Turnbull: Newspoll, China, Melbourne Trains and Sheep

Malcolm Turnbull has cleared his 30th negative Newspoll without his leadership being challenged. We covered that whole saga in a deep dive on Tuesday.

The PM has pledged up to $5 billion to help build a rail link from Melbourne’s CBD to their airport. Labor has supported the move.

The Australian government also engaged in some tricky diplomacy with China this week, warning them against building possible military bases on Vanuatu. Such a base would be the first for China to establish power in the Pacific, and would be only its second base outside of its shores. Turnbull said: “The maintenance of peace and stability in the Pacific is of utmost importance to us, to Australia – it’s one of the key priorities of the foreign policy white paper. We would view with great concern the establishment of any foreign military bases in those Pacific island countries and neighbours of ours.” Federal Labor has agreed with the government’s concerns.

The federal government is also reviewing the Department of Agriculture after failing to uncover and act on horrid animal welfare violations. The review was sparked by the death of over 2,000 Aussie sheep on a ship in the Middle East. The Federal Agriculture Minister, David Littleproud, described the conditions on the ship were ‘bullshit’.

The ATO is being audited

The federal government has launched an inquiry into the Australian Tax Office after an explosive Four Corners aired this week. Two ATO whistleblowers pointed to a toxic workplace culture inside the ATO, where vulnerable small business were deliberately targeted in order to meet revenue goals. The program hi-lighted the ATO’s power, with some lawyers suggesting there isn’t enough checks and balances in the system to ensure ethical practices.

Facebook Grilled

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was grilled in Congress for two days this week, as a formal investigation into a massive data leak continues. (We did a deep dive into the scandal here.) Zuckerberg admitted responsibility for the data breach and apologised. He was more evasive on questions around how much data Facebook holds onto. He was quick to say that users own all of their content and are free to delete it, but had to be pressed before admitting that Facebook users have no control over the advertising profile that is built around them, or Facebook accessing their browser history.

The greatest exchange, in Slow News Weekly’s opinion, was between Democratic Senator Richard Durbin and Zuckerberg. Durbin asked him if he “would be comfortable sharing with us the name of the hotel you stayed in last night.” Zuckerberg blushed.

Trump Lawyer Raided

Trump’s long-time personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, had his offices raided on Monday by the FBI. Trump has repeatedly described the ongoing investigation as a ‘total witch hunt’.  The raid was apparently ordered to look for records about payments to two women who claim they had affairs with Trump. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders has suggested that Trump has the power to fire Robert Mueller – the special counsel in charge of the investigation. The Senate Judiciary Committee has moved to introduce legislation that would protect such actions from happening.

Powerful Republican Paul Ryan announced his retirement on Wednesday. Ryan had attempted to distance himself from Trump, and his resignation has triggered concern for many in his party. In November, the mid-term elections for Congress could make life extremely difficult for President Trump and the Republican Party. (Check out our deep dive here.)

Chinese Olive Branch

In the past couple of weeks, tensions have escalated between the United States and China, as both inflicted importation taxes on the other, triggering global concerns of a trade war. This week, President Xi Jinping of China offered the first olive branch, urging “dialogue rather than confrontation.”

He has pledged to easing restrictions on imported cars, and strengthening intellectual property rights – addressing Trump’s key complaint against China stealing United States technology.

Fleetwood Mac

Fleetwood Mac frontman Lindsey Buckingham was fired from the band this week. Neil Finn of Crowded House and Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers will apparently replace him. If you’ve never had the pleasure, you should listen to the album Rumours immediately. 

Alexis Wright Wins Stella

Miles Franklin Award-winning writer Alexis Wright has won the prestigious Stella Prize for her extraordinary biography ‘Tracker’, about the life of Indigenous activist Tracker Tilmouth. The book is highly recommended by Slow News Weekly.

Praise the pink, metal penis

This week the annual Kanamara Matsuri, or Festival of the Steel Phallus, took place in Kawasaki, Japan. The festival began in 1969 and is centred around a local shrine. Legend has it a sharp-toothed demon hid inside the vagina of a young woman and bit off penises of two men. So the local women asked a blacksmith to fashion a fake penis. The festival raises funds for HIV charities, promotes sex education, and is attended by over 50,000 people.

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Photo at the top courtesy of The Guardian.

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